World's oldest music hall finds ways to survive the pandemic

For the world’s oldest music hall, necessity has been the mother of invention.

Settle Victoria Hall project manager Ann Harding

Up and down the land the pandemic has meant a total shutdown of live theatre, raising fears that for some it will be the final curtain.

But Victoria Hall, in Settle, North Yorkshire, which was created as a purpose-built music hall in 1853, has turned disaster into opportunity.

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Within days of lockdown, project manager Ann Harding set up Settle Community Response, which has since carried out 2,500 jobs – everything from delivering prescriptions to putting up washing lines.

The world's oldest music hall looks set to survive the global pandemic

And this week it opened its latest venture, pop-up charity shop Miss Victoria’s Second-Hand

Pop-Up Emporium, which bills itself as a “collection of curiosities, curios and clothing for the modern cost-conscious consumer”.

Next month they are looking to open an outside stage, cinema, and offer refreshments from a cafe in a field at the back of the hall.

Ms Harding is confident Victoria Hall, which is a charity and social enterprise, will survive “as long as people keep supporting us”.

The hall has become the setting for Miss Victoria's Second-Hand Pop-Up Emporium

She admits at first things were tough, when turnover plummeted from an average £6,000 a week to zero and the 170 events they hold each year including

festivals, live music, cinema and stand-up comedy were cancelled indefinitely.

She said: “I had to literally physically sit in a corner and cry, and then said to myself right, okay, let’s switch my mindset from disaster into how can I create an opportunity? Because I cannot control Covid-19, but I can control what our future is going to look like.

“The moment I turned my mindset, that’s when things got better – everyone else moved as well, and we started coming up with ideas.”

Following lockdown she decided to put the hall’s assets –its space, phonelines and a strong volunteer network – to good use.

She said: “In our demographic, 31.6 per cent are over the age of 70.

“We’ve sat here in tears sometimes at the things people have said, it’s just so lovely – the letters, the phone calls from people all over the world saying they can’t express how grateful they are that we are there for their mother or father.

“It’s a comfort for their families.”

The new enterprises will ensure jobs are safeguarded until it reopens for indoor events, which may not be until January. It has even resulted in one new job role for a local young person two days a week to help manage the projects.

She said: “I said from day one, this (pandemic) will not be the thing that makes us close our doors.

“The benefit we have over other theatres is that we have already had to be very entrepreneurial in what we do in order to survive. We are not funded by council or grants.”

On Wednesday it was revealed that musicals Les Miserables, Mary Poppins, Hamilton and The Phantom Of The Opera will not return to the West End this year.

Theatre owner Cameron Mackintosh said he had taken the “heartbreaking” decision because of uncertainty over both safety for audiences and a date for the withdrawal of social distancing measures. There had also been no tangible practical support “beyond offers to go into debt”.

At 167 years old, Settle Victoria Hall, the world's oldest surviving music hall, predates the Settle-Carlisle railway by 13 years.

The brainchild of the secretary of the Settle Choral Society, the Reverend J Robinson, the hall was aimed to provide “public instruction and entertainment” with music, theatre, meetings and lectures.

Classical musicians through magicians and General Tom Thumb trod its boards in the 1800s.

The Music Hall was renamed Victoria Hall in 1892 after the long-reigning monarch. In 1919 – when Spanish flu was raging – it became a cinema as well as staging meetings, shows and the beginning of the Dramatic Club.

After WW2 the Settle Drama Festival was launched.

In 1994 it was chosen for the town’s Community Centre Project, which aimed to rejuvenate the popular, but worse for wear building, as one of the community’s most precious resources.